Famed writing program on the chopping block

March 8, 2011 1:36:59 PM PST
After decades of federal support, an acclaimed writing program that began at UC Berkeley 37 years ago, faces a difficult future due to budget cuts agreed to by Congress and the Obama administration.

The $25 million elimination of federal funds to the National Writing Project, which trains teachers to be more effective writing instructors, is part of the $4 billion budget-cutting compromise reached last week to prevent a federal government shutdown.

One report, by the Associated Press, described the cuts as being among "the easiest spending cuts Congress can make." Another, by CNN Money, described them as "the lowest of the low hanging fruit."

That may be how things look from Washington. But drill down to the state and local level, and the picture looks very different.

Low hanging fruit? Easiest cuts? The National Writing Project began as the Bay Area Writing Project in 1974. It has since expanded to 17 sites across California, and to more than 200 in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Its centerpiece is a four-week intensive summer program training 3,300 teachers each year to be more effective writing instructors. The network of teachers trained by the project since its inception now exceeds 70,000.

Federal funds make up 50 percent of the project's funding. The other half comes from matching grants from school districts and universities generated at a local level. Without the federal funds, Executive Director Sharon Washington said, there will be nothing to match, placing the entire project in "grave jeopardy."

Washington said that research shows that students taught by writing project teachers do better on writing tests than those taught by teachers who had not gone through the training.

Reversing Congress' and President Obama's action will be tough. The Obama administration is under pressure to make tens of billions in additional cuts, rather than reinstating those it has already made. In fact, late last week the administration agreed to another $6.5 billion in cuts.

Moreover, the Obama administration was already attempting to end guaranteed funding for the writing project, and for several other literacy projects like the Reading is Fundamental program. Last year, as part of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, it had proposed consolidating funding for several literacy projects into a single grant program. Individual organizations would then have to apply for those funds, in some cases competing against former partners. But because Congress never took up reauthorization, the change never occurred.

Washington said the writing project's network of sites was already being squeezed as a result of the budget pain at the local and state level, which means they have been less able to match federal funding than in the past. Funds used by local districts for teacher training and "professional development" programs like the National Writing Project are being trimmed or eliminated altogether.

As a result, Washington said, her organization will have to ramp up its fundraising efforts in the private sector. "We are looking at strategies to raise private funds at a much higher level than we ever have before," she said.

But the experience of the National Writing Project suggests that no programs are protected against the budget cutting juggernaut roaring through Washington, even those with considerable support and long track records of success [PDF].

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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